SAN JUAN, P.R.—One year from today, the Mets will add to their payroll a 47-year-old, past-his-prime power hitter who has a reputation as a malcontent—a player who has been retired from professional baseball for nine years and won't play another game again.
Nevertheless, starting on July 1, 2011, Bobby Bonilla will remain on the franchise's payroll for 25 years, collecting an annual salary of $1,193,248.20. Those are the terms the Mets agreed to Jan. 3, 2000, when they bought out the final year of Mr. Bonilla's contract.
"That beautiful thing," he said here Monday.
At his best, Mr. Bonilla was a versatile player and productive hitter during his 16 years in the major leagues. Seven times, he hit at least 20 home runs in a season. Four times, he drove in at least 100 runs. He played third base, first base and the outfield at various stages of his career. He was on six playoff teams and won a World Series in 1997 with the Florida Marlins.
This unusual arrangement between him and the Mets, though, is characteristic of his time with the team—4˝ years marked by controversy and unmet expectations. By the time Mr. Bonilla departed, the Mets were so eager to be rid of him that they agreed to defer payment—with interest—of the $5.9 million they owed him in the final year of his contract.
When Mets fans think of Mr. Bonilla and outsized contracts, they usually remember the free-agent deal he signed with the team in December 1991—a five-year, $29 million agreement that made him the highest-paid player in Major League Baseball. He then became the emblem for one of the worst periods in the franchise's history; the Mets were an aggregate 75 games under .500 over Mr. Bonilla's first three full seasons with the team before they traded him to Baltimore in July 1995.
But it was actually Mr. Bonilla's second free-agent contract that led to his upcoming financial windfall. He signed with the Marlins in 1996 for four years and $23.3 million. After Florida traded Mr. Bonilla to the Los Angeles Dodgers in May 1998, the Mets then re-acquired him that following off-season, sending relief pitcher Mel Rojas to the Dodgers for Mr. Bonilla on Nov. 11, 1998.
Mr. Bonilla's second tenure with the Mets was far briefer, but no better, than his first. He hit just .160 with four home runs in 60 games in 1999. He feuded with manager Bobby Valentine. In perhaps his most memorable transgression, he played cards with teammate Rickey Henderson as the Mets lost the deciding game of the National League Championship Series in Atlanta. The Mets didn't want him around any longer, and Mr. Bonilla wanted the freedom to pursue another contract with another team, but the Mets were still on the hook for the $5.9 million due Mr. Bonilla in 2000.
Beverly Hills Sports Council represented Mr. Bonilla during negotiations with Steve Phillips, then the Mets' general manager. Attempts to reach Mr. Phillips through his agent, Steve Lefkowitz, were unsuccessful, and agent Jeff Borris, who is still with BHSC, said through a spokesman that he had "no comment at this time."
Jeff Wilpon, the Mets' chief operating officer, and David Howard, the team's executive vice president of business operations, also did not return calls seeking comment. A Mets team spokesman said of Mr. Bonilla's contract: "It's old news. There's nothing new here.''
Dennis Gilbert, who had represented Mr. Bonilla earlier in Mr. Bonilla's career and remains one of his friends, said in a phone interview that there was no need for Mr. Bonilla to strong-arm the Mets into such a lucrative buyout.
"The idea wasn't completely unilateral," said Mr. Gilbert, a senior partner at Gilbert-Krupkin LLC, an insurance and estate-planning firm. "It wasn't one way. Both sides thought it was a good idea."
In fact, according to Mr. Gilbert, the only real sticking point in the deal was the interest rate. The two sides eventually agreed on 8 percent. In January 2000, the U.S. Prime Rate was 8.5 percent, according to FedPrimeRate.com.
Years earlier, Mr. Gilbert had negotiated with former Mets general manager Al Harazin a similar deal for Bret Saberhagen, who pitched for the team from 1992 to 1995. For 25 years starting in 2004, Mr. Saberhagen receives annual deferred payments of $250,000. So when the Mets decided to buy out Mr. Bonilla's contract, they had precedent and a template already in place for such an agreement.
By postponing their payments to Mr. Bonilla for 11 years, the Mets freed enough money to trade for starting pitcher Mike Hampton and outfielder Derek Bell and sign first baseman Todd Zeile. Those three players earned a combined $15.1 million in 2000, and the Mets reached the World Series that year for the first time since 1986.
But the team has reached the postseason only once since, and it can be argued that the short-term gain of the arrangement with Mr. Bonilla wasn't worth the long-term cost. Because the Mets are repaying him with interest, Mr. Bonilla will earn $29,831,205 between 2011 and 2035—more than he earned in his first contract with the Mets.
"Bobby's a very smart person," Mr. Gilbert said, "and he understands the value of income."
Working as a special assistant to Michael Weiner, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, Mr. Bonilla was at Hiram Bithorn Stadium this week for the three-game series between the Mets and Marlins, two of the eight teams he played for during his career.
He spent time Monday mingling with players and coaches. Mets rightfielder Jeff Francoeur, the team's representative to the players association, chatted with Mr. Bonilla in the Mets' clubhouse. Mr. Francoeur said he was unaware of the conditions of Mr. Bonilla's buyout and had never heard of such a contract.
"But it's awesome," he said. "You pull something off like that, and later on you don't have to worry about [stuff]."
As he sat in the visitors' dugout talking with manager Jerry Manuel, Mr. Bonilla could see the Mets beginning their pre-batting practice calisthenics. Among them were several important players who are earning less in guaranteed money this year than Mr. Bonilla will earn next year.
Those players include; infielder Fernando Tatis ($850,000); pitchers Hisanori Takahashi ($1 million) and Jon Niese ($402,000); and catchers Rod Barajas ($500,000) and Henry Blanco ($750,000).
"Hey," Mr. Bonilla said, "a blind squirrel can find an acorn."
Write to Mike Sielski at email@example.com
Correction $ Amplification
Beginning on July 1, 2011, the Mets will pay former player Bobby Bonilla $1.19 million a year for 25 years as part of a buyout of the $5.9 million the team owed him in 2000. A previous headline of this article incorrectly gave the amount of the annual payment as $1.9 million.